Making a difference in south Los Angeles, one block at a time

Kusema Thomas has worked for Community Coalition in South Los Angeles as a community organizer for three years.  He spends a lot of time in neighborhoods where drug use and prostitution are, he says, as common as “people eating dinner.”  One needs to have a lot of patience and diligence if he or she wants to work as a community organizer as it takes a very long time to see progress in the neighborhood.  But Thomas says even little changes inspire him to work harder and continue his efforts to make a difference in South Los Angeles. 

South Los Angeles at the intersection of Western Avenue and 39th Street is a place of contradictions.

The Leffall Sharon Medical Clinic is located on Western Avenue providing free medical services to the members of the community.  A couple of blocks from it is the Exposition Park Library where students at nearby schools go to read and study.  A drug rehabilitation center also stands to provide treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.

Between these places, which are essential for the mental and physical health of South LA residents, there is a recycling center.  Many residents come here to exchange empty bottles and cans for some pocket money.  But some bring recyclable goods to get money for drugs.

Across the street from the free health clinic, a motel provides lodging on a daily or weekly basis.  But the motel has been often used for those who need a place to use drugs or for prostitution.


Kusema Thomas, as a community organizer for Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, is familiar with these activities in the neighborhood.

“Some people come here to buy drugs or get their fix,” he said.


It costs about $40 to check out a room at motels in the area.  Thomas explained with the money earned from selling recyclable products, people can purchase either drugs from drug houses or prostitutes and bring them to the motel.

“That spills over to the community.  And the cycle continues all day long.  It’s as common as one eating dinner,” explained Thomas.

Thomas, South LA native, has been working as a community organizer for three years.  He walks down the street in the area of Western Avenue at 39th Street a few times a week.  His job often involves talking to residents, business owners and other members of the community as part of the “Communities Rising” project launched by Community Coalition.

“It’s been going on since the 80s when the influx of drugs came into the neighborhood,” said Thomas in explaining the common use of drugs in the area.

What makes matters worse is that prostitution has become a bigger issue.

“Prostitution is also taking over the community,” Thomas said.

He said the first step of his work is a “sit-down” with people in the community.

“We talk to residents and community members about the conditions of the neighborhood.  And we ask them about concerns.  We also educate them on issues,” he said.

To watch the interview with Thomas, click here.

After working on the same project for years, many community organizers do not see any progress or change.  Especially in places like South Los Angeles where drug use has been prevalent for three decades, the illegal activities could make Thomas’ job harder.

“It could get very, very frustrating at times. You’re fighting for the same thing for five years or longer until you see some sign of change,” he said.

It could be a thankless job.  Many are resistant to change.  Some people scream at community organizers for trying to help them.  According to, an average community organizer gets paid about $32,000.

Despite many hurdles, for Thomas, the source of motivation is his strong ties to the community.

“I grew up here and want to see something different.  When I was growing up, it was a community with rich culture with middle-class families. We can go back to that.  The 80s changed this neighborhood a lot.  Bars were going up around the buildings.  There are car alarms.  But I believe we can change that.”

He also said for many community organizers like himself, a small sign of change could pump them up, get them excited and drive them to work harder.

“I talk to 10 folks.  And two of them would say they would get involved or help us to change the community.  Sometimes, I hear people say they feel 90 percent safer at the neighborhood park.  That makes me feel like we’re doing something great here.”

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